Richard J. Elrod, left, celebrates his birthday in 1970 with wife, Marilyn, and Mayor Richard J. Daley | Sun-Times Library
Former Cook County Sheriff Richard J. Elrod dies at 80
Former Cook County Sheriff Richard J. Elrod served four consecutive terms in office in the ’70s and ’80s, after suffering spinal damage while trying to detain a protester during the violent “Days of Rage” anti-war protests in 1969.
Elrod was a 35-year-old lawyer for the city of Chicago when he saw a police officer chasing a man near Madison and Clark. The officer was yelling, “Stop him,” Elrod told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986.
“Unfortunately, I did,” said Elrod, who tackled the man and suffered a broken neck in the confrontation, an injury that caused Elrod to walk with a crutch.
He went on to become Cook County sheriff from 1970 to 1986, and he served as a Cook County Circuit Court judge from 1988 until Saturday, when he died at 80 following complications from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
“Ironically, he was on the street that day primarily because he was looking out for the civil rights and constitutional freedoms of the protesters,” said Elrod’s son, Steven.
Advising police and ensuring the rights of protesters was part of his job and led him to be present at mass demonstrations, protests, riots and civil disturbances.
“Unfortunately he was in the wrong place at he wrong time, but it gave him the mental fortitude to push forward no matter what,” his son said. “Many said he would not survive, and if he did he would not walk and may not live long.”
The trial of the man charged with crippling Elrod, Brian Flanagan, transfixed the city during a time of culture wars augmented by the Vietnam War. Flanagan was acquitted of aggravated assault. It was a tumultuous era when a casual trip downtown for errands or work could devolve into witnessing disorder, with long-haired protesters chanting “Hell, no, we won’t go” as they squared off against grim police whom they called “pigs.’’
The Days of Rage protests in which Elrod was injured drew the Weathermen, a radical wing of the Students for a Democratic Society, who were protesting the War in Vietnam and the Chicago 7 trial of men accused of trying to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
The prosecution claimed Flanagan kicked Elrod with heavy-toed construction boots, and the defense countered that Elrod brought the injury on himself by going at Flanagan with a flying tackle.
While still in traction in the hospital, Elrod was visited by Mayor Richard J. Daley and slated as the Democratic candidate for sheriff.
A year earlier, Elrod had advised Daley to not enforce curfew restrictions on protesters during the Democratic National Convention.
“He was the one who actually insisted during an argument with Daley that protesters be allowed to stay out after curfew,” Steven Elrod said. “He lost that argument, and dozens of protesters were arrested in Grant Park for curfew violations and the whole world was watching.”
Cook County Commissioner John Daley remembered the last time he saw Elrod walking without assistance. He and his brother Bill were visiting their father’s office when Elrod dropped by to say he was going to go out and monitor the Days of Rage protests.
“He was talking to my dad and he said, ‘I’ll see you in an hour or so,’ ” John Daley said. “In less than an hour we heard about his accident.”
After serving as a corporation counsel in the Daley administration, Elrod was elected to the Illinois House for one term before he successfully ran for the sheriff’s office. In that role, he renovated the Cook County Jail to offer inmates a more humane environment, his son said.
“One accomplishment he was particularly proud of as sheriff was the recognition by Republican President Ronald Reagan for the establishment of the youth services department that focused on youth counseling and drug awareness and enforcement. It was a relatively new concept, and my dad was recognized as being an innovator,” his son said.
But his time as sheriff was not without controversy. Two senior sheriff’s department officials were convicted for accepting bribes to look overlook gambling and prostitution. The scandal prompted Elrod to publicly apologize for the misbehavior that occurred on his watch. “He was unequivocally exonerated of any wrongdoing,” his son said.
During Elrod’s career as a Circuit Court judge, he was reputed to display an encyclopedic mind.
“He could cite case opinions by volume and case numbers without notes,” his son said, adding his effective mediation style led to numerous cases being settled, saving the cost of trials.
“He served with such distinction on the bench,” said former Cook County Assessor Tom Tully. “Both sides would accept his skillset in resolving cases.”
“He always had a smile and a kind word,” Tully said. “He never complained about his health. . . .people remarked about his courage.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also praised his “fortitude despite physical ailment, his faith in the highest ideals of justice and public service, and his fidelity to the city he loved and the family who loved him, are examples to us all and reminders of the great contributions and even greater character of Richard.”
John Daley agreed. “His injury, he never let it define himself. He was a great sheriff, a great judge and he and [his wife] Marilyn are great friends. The county has lost a great man of public service who loved serving the people.”
And, “He was a great orator,” Tully said. “He could speak to the ward worker and to the Civic Federation.”
Elrod was the son of a one of the city’s most potent power brokers, West Side ward boss Arthur X. Elrod, a Cook County commissioner and Democratic committeeman of the 24th Ward.
He earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at Northwestern University, where he met his wife. He also played defensive guard on the school’s football team.
A Lincolnwood resident, Elrod was passionate about the White Sox, the Bulls and any Broadway musical that ever was written, his son said.
In addition to his wife and son, Elrod is survived by his daughter, Audrey, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at Temple Am Shalom, 840 Vernon Avenue, Glencoe.